For Survivors of Violence in Central America, Asylum Can Be a Matter of Life or Death

Photo by Gage Skidmore | CC BY-SA 2.0

The people who come into our shelter in Santa Cruz County have frequently been beaten, trafficked and sexually assaulted in Central America. They have come to the United States as a last resort—in order to save their lives.

But a policy change under our current presidential administration threatens the health and well-being of these victims of violence.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed an appeals court ruling, “the Matter of A-B-,” that granted a Salvadorian woman asylum from domestic violence. The Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in her favor in 2016, after she had sustained 15 years of brutal violence from her ex-husband. The Salvadorian government was unable to protect her, leaving her only recourse to flee the country and seek asylum here.

In most cases, the abusers have more protections than the victims in Central American countries, sometimes due to corruption and longstanding policies, or because of cultural norms that disregard women’s rights.

Laura Segura

At Monarch Services, we frequently work with survivors who seek refuge from their homes in Central America because they were being brutalized and had no one to turn to in their home countries. A 2012 Centers for Disease Control study found that intimate partner violence in Latin America is widespread—in some countries, over 50 percent of women suffer abuse. These survivors have no other option than to seek asylum. The decision to leave their country becomes a matter of life and death.

We see firsthand the devastating effects of domestic violence on women and families and understand particularly the adverse impact on children who witness violence.

The attorney general’s decision to remove domestic violence as grounds for seeking asylum in the U.S. shows his contempt for women, immigrants and the law. This decision also attacks longstanding protections for domestic violence survivors and those who look to the U.S. for protection and refuge, taking us back to an era when domestic violence was considered a “private” matter that didn’t merit intervention and support.

Denying asylum for domestic violence survivors affects not only those who are in search of refuge and safety for themselves and their children, but also raises the risk of deportation for the hundreds of survivors with cases already pending in the U.S. legal system. For these survivors, returning to their home country would place them and their families in extreme peril, even at risk of death. The stress associated with these increased risks is evident throughout our country.

In addition to placing families, women and children in imminent danger, I’m deeply disheartened about the impact this ruling will have on the domestic violence and women’s movements. This decision erodes the progress that’s been made toward addressing gender-based violence during the last four decades.

We simply cannot revert to a time when women were treated as second-class people with little or no recourse in our justice system. We must urge Congress to hold the attorney general accountable and reject his ruling. There are longstanding provisions in our country’s asylum laws enabling immigrant victims of domestic violence to seek refuge. These protections cannot be undermined overnight by the whim of an administration.

Laura Segura is the executive director of Monarch Services, which provides advocacy and shelter for survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual assault.

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